This piece was completed on New Year’s Day 1965, fulfilling a commission—from the BBC Transcription Service of all places—for that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. A little confusingly perhaps, its text is not by the fifth-century poet Sedulius (known as Coelius Sedulius), author of the Christmas and Epiphany hymns ‘A solis ortis cardine’ and ‘Hostis Herodis impie’, whose long poem Carmen paschale
was a five-volume narrative and commentary on episodes from the Gospels. Rather, Birtwistle’s text is a shorter poem by a ninth-century Irish grammarian also called Sedulius, now generally known as Sedulius Scotus to distinguish him from his earlier namesake. This Sedulius left Ireland for Liège, where he taught, wrote, and is believed to have been both scribe and translator of a dual-language Greek/Latin version of Paul’s Epistles whose manuscript survives today. The classical scholar and translator Helen Waddell (1889–1965) included the Easter poem in her influential collection Medieval Latin Lyrics
, giving it the title Carmen Paschale
(in a subconscious memory of the earlier Sedulius?), and Birtwistle must have found it there, although he sets it in the original Latin rather than the English translation that Waddell provides alongside. The style is metrically fluid but texturally simpler than in any of the other choral works on this disc, the choir remaining in four parts (SATB) throughout and alternating passages in unison rhythm with passages of gentle counterpoint led off by the women and men in turn. At the mention of a nightingale Birtwistle adds a new, instrumental line; marked ‘Free like a bird’, it is assigned in the published score to an organ, although Birtwistle now says that he intended a flute, and that is what is heard on this recording.
from notes by John Fallas © 2014